Burst Your Bubble


汉语世界(The World of Chinese) 2021年4期

Adam Robbins

A classic of Chinese queer sci-fi challenges everyone to shed their certainties


June has passed, a month dedicated to the stories of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) community. In many parts of the world this means parades, festivals, and parties celebrated with fresh vigor after a cloistered 2020. For the literary world, this month of Pride kicked off with the English release of a Chinese-language queer sci-fi classic: Chi Ta-Weis The Membranes.

In Ari Larissa Heinrichs adept translation, the prose of this Taiwanese 1995 novella arrives direct and declarative, like the semi-confessional writing that internet users committed to sites like LiveJournal around that time. Its short, propulsive, and deceptively approachable. We very quickly understand the backstory of the protagonist Momo, told in wistful vignettes that reveal a future where all humanity has fled to the oceans floor to survive.

Chi presents a charming and somewhat na?ve introduction to this disturbing future. The publishing industry flourishes—in this New Renaissance, writers can earn a living!—not in physical books or online publishing, but endless laserdiscs produced by MegaHard, a corporate behemoth that battles Microsoft and emerges victorious. Momos mother, a marketing Vice President at the company, helps distribute this plastic memory with useful tips on how to scrub away viruses and enjoy drugs without addiction. AIDS has been tamed with a mandatory vaccine, but the skin allergies it provokes—and the age of free love it awakens—create a booming market for the beauty industry, especially celebrity dermal care technicians like Momo.

Or so it seems.

Despite a bevy of technological marvels and perils, world-building is not the primary interest of Chi, who would go on to win multiple literary awards and analyze the islands culture in Fetish Stories and

A Queer Invention in Taiwan. While the setting of The Membranes is filled with tropes familiar from Japanese anime, the narration is consumed with a dystopian identity flux, more like Philip K. Dick with hints of Judith Butler.

As science fiction, it charts a course vastly different from the mainlands hard sci-fi, exemplified in Liu Cixins Three-Body Problem. Its peppered with references to books and film, with subdued action like in an Ang Lee film, and questions from the narrator in similar style to European philosophical fiction—fittingly, the only prior translation was into French. From the first paragraph were invited to question everything about Momos reality. But, as in everyday life, the reader quickly forgets the troubling metaphysics as were drawn into the stream-of-conscious flow of reflections, anxiety, estranged intimacies, memories, schemes, and resolution.

In the layers of fiction that constitute Momos story—or more accurately, constitute Momo—Chi foreshadows a future that is quite queer, in the sense of breaking down sex and gender norms. Momo casually mentions she has two moms, that shes traded one sexual anatomy for another, but that shes been a girl throughout. The only man mentioned in the book loses himself in gay saunas and the search for “rough trade.”

But beneath those emblems lies a more radical queerness that can benefit people of any identity. When the final revelation comes, it exposes how fictional and malleable Momos identity is. Shes a girl because her mother wanted one. Shes a celebrity dermal care technician because the corporation says she is. These stories are the true membranes of the title, keeping out the ugly truth and preserving a beautiful lie inside her mind.

Who is Momo? Shes an idea built from stories. Who tells those stories? Momo counts her mother and the corporation manipulating her—but I count more. By the end of the novella we can trace a wealth of influences on Momo, including Shakespeares plays, Bergmans films, and countless novels. Most importantly, we see the fictions built by Momo herself as she processes her longings and aspirations into memories of her own making, designed within the prison of her mind. This, more than the setting, is what makes Momos story radically queer.

Physical reality may be odious and oppressive: Chi knows it, having lived through the final years of Taiwans martial law era, the terror of the AIDS pandemic, and the scourge of bigotry that still mars much of our world. But the queer rejoinder to those oppressions is often the same: In my head, I have as much power as you. Momo, without even realizing it, uses that power to build her own story, inside and around the lies shes been told. Thats where she finds a queer sort of freedom. Its a lesson from the LGBTQ+ community that can help liberate readers of any identity.

The queer liberation we can read in The Membranes is that we each contain the freedom to define ourselves, using scraps of experience, story, and fantasy in and around us. Recognizing how malleable we are, we can reimagine ourselves as needed. It can be terrifying and vulnerable to let ones certainties crumble, but in a world that limits or rejects you, its the only way to survive. By rewriting your story, you can reimagine this world and your place in it; by sharing our stories, we can make room for everyone at the margins. And that might be the only way well survive the world to come.


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